Culinary arts programs can equip participants with kitchen, hospitality, and business skills that individuals need for a successful career in food and beverage. These programs can be especially important for refugees and displaced persons who are trying to start new lives. More than 82 million have been forcibly displaced across the globe. The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated food scarcity, mental distress, and resulting health disparities for refugee communities.
Syrian lawyer and chef Kamal Naji, based in the Netherlands, insists that relief lies in gastrodiplomacy — food can “break stereotypes between refugees and citizens of host countries” and facilitate societal integration, she says.
Around the world, passionate chefs and activists are using culinary arts programs to create inclusive spaces for refugees to feed their futures and their communities. Here are 19 individuals and organizations using food to support asylum seekers.
1. Hamed Ahmadi, Italy
In 2016, Hamed Ahmadi, an Afghan political refugee now living in Venice, Italy helped open Africa Experience alongside three other refugees. The restaurant employs cooks from Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Guinea who have no prior food service experience. They have also opened Orient Experience, a catering service that collaborates with migrant reception centers. Locals and refugees come for budget-friendly, plant-based options like injera with tomato and lentil salad, but stay for the sense of community.
2. Beyond the Plate, United States
Beyond the Plate is a non-profit community food space in Albuquerque, New Mexico hosted by Three Sisters Kitchen. Their culinary and vocational training programs encourage refugees to use food as a vehicle for storytelling and connecting with others. Participating chefs sell their goods at local markets and host cooking classes that invite participants to learn about the history of traditional dishes while incorporating local New Mexican ingredients.
3. Eat Offbeat, United States
Eat Offbeat was born when Lebanese founder Manal Kahi stumbled into entrepreneurship while trying to recreate hummus as delicious as her grandmother’s. Now a delivery service, they provide hearty, homey meals and picnic boxes prepared by a team from Senegal, Sri Lanka, Iran, and Syria. Kahi employs a 100 percent immigrant or refugee culinary team in an effort to create jobs and combat stigma. Meal delivery is limited to New York City, but Eat Offbeat ships authentic pantry goods like Syrian barazek sesame cookies and Venezuelan pineapple jam nationwide.
4. Ebru Baybara Demir, Turkey
Turkish Chef Ebru Baybara Demir helms a cluster of projects that integrate Syrian refugees into social life. The Harran Gastronomy School Project preserves traditional products and recipes through culinary training. The accompanying Living Soil, Local Seed program trains refugee women to cultivate Indigenous Sorgül wheat without fertilizer or irrigation. Demir also organizes beekeeping trainings, bread and pastry-making workshops, and teaches women to make Halep soap from olive oil pulp to sell cooperatively. In 2020, a total of 350 local farmers and refugees participated in her projects.
5. Emma’s Torch, United States
Based in Brooklyn, New York, the New American restaurant Emma’s Torch offers a paid two-month apprentice program to help refugees find meaningful employment in the food industry. Participants receive up to 400 hours of culinary training at the organization’s full-service restaurant, or their cafe inside the Brooklyn Public Library. They also receive resume writing, technology literacy, and conversational English instruction. After completion, 97 percent of graduates find jobs.
6. Johanna Mendelson Forman, United States
An Adjunct Professor at American University, Joanna Mendelson Forman is a prominent voice in the social gastronomy movement. She created and teaches the course Conflict Cuisine®: An Introduction to War and Peace Around the Dinner Table, which explores diplomacy, civic engagement, conflict resolution, and how food functions as a form of power. Mendelson also manages the gastrodiplomacy component of the Livelihoods Innovation through Food Entrepreneurship (LIFE) Project, which supports Syrian refugees in Turkey who are using food as a tool for cultural preservation and economic development.
7. Grassroots Future, Hong Kong
Her dream of uniting disparate communities through food motivated Tegan Smyth to found Table of Two Cities, a culinary storytelling platform in Hong Kong. Monthly cooking sessions at the kitchen space in the Refugee Union’s Sai Ying Pun office grew into Grassroots Future, a charity representing the refugee community. In addition to outreach and education, Grassroots Future organizes refugee poetry readings, cooking workshops, and multimedia food-centric content to present refugees’ experience through food.
8. Kreuzberger Himmel, Germany
Integration and solidarity are part of the menu at Kreuzberger Himmel in Berlin, Germany. The staff proudly originate from four different countries and speak six languages. Together, they provide a creative outlet for refugees trying to find their place in a new city. Supported by Be An Angel, an organization that has helped over 2,500 refugees navigate the legalities of seeking asylum, Kreuzberger Himmel hosts interns, apprentices, cooks, and service workers. They offer catering and in-house dinner, with many naturally plant-based or local ingredient-driven options.
9. Asma Khan, United Kingdom
“There is a disconnection between what is taken and enjoyed from other cultures and how people from those cultures are treated,” says restaurateur and cookbook author Asma Khan. Khan’s restaurant Darjeeling Express features an amateur, all-woman kitchen staff. The restaurant typically serves homestyle Indian food, but on Sundays, she offers her space to other novice woman chefs to host pop-up dinners. Khan also established a refugee camp cafe in Iraq employing Yazidi women.
10. Hummustown, Italy
Launched by Shaza Saker, who works for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Hummustown seeks to help Syrian refugees settling in Italy. Women working with Hummustown gain economic opportunities, training, and a new social network while sharing their own culinary traditions. The organization also offers cooking classes and provides around 100 free meals per month to those in need.
11. MAKE Projects, United States
The organization Merging Agriculture, Kitchens + Employment (MAKE) hosts two paid training programs to immerse female refugees in culinary arts or agriculture in San Diego, California. Interested women can enroll in CHOP, where they practice culinary skills in a fast-paced, restaurant-style work environment, or Youth FarmWorks, where they study digital advertising, farming, and business. Since its launch in 2015, MAKE has trained 121 students from 26 countries.
12. Migrateful, United Kingdom
Cookery classes from Migrateful are meant to be both delicious and socially conscious: they celebrate migrants who experience language or legal barriers to integration. Founder Jess Thompson met a group of highly qualified, yet unemployed, women during a 2017 Year Here Fellowship, and immediately launched Migrateful. 1,674 classes later, students enjoy meals from Gambia, Ghana, Iran, and more as they build community.
13. Na Cafe, Thailand
This zero-waste cafe serves juices made from ingredients grown in an on-site garden, and homestyle Thai dishes, coffee, and tea. Na Cafe also hosts a monthly chef’s table that serves as a cultural exchange for international talent. Ongoing vocational training programs for at-risk youth and urban refugees help propel trainees into food and beverage careers.
14. Parliament on King, Australia
Parliament on King in Newtown, Australia is working to redefine what it means to be an inclusive neighborhood cafe. Founder Ravi Prasad transformed his home into a cultural sanctuary open 24 hours each day, that trains refugees for hospitality jobs. The cafe serves coffee and pastries by day and hosts a dinner service prepared by rotating, self-taught staff at night.
15. Project Feast, United States
Over 70 apprentices have graduated from Project Feast, a nonprofit in Kent, Washington that helps refugees find employment in the food industry. Apprentices practice their skills at the Ubuntu Street Cafe — Ubuntu means the bond of sharing that connects humanity — where diners can feast on homemade kimchi pancakes or baklava. One quarter of the program’s graduates launch their own food ventures. Project Feast also prepared over 10,000 community meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing apprentices with consistent work despite hospitality industry layoffs.
16. Refugee Food, France
The annual Refugee Food Festival takes place across 10 cities in France, when local restaurants collaborate with refugee cooks. Since 2016, the Festival has expanded to include two professional training programs and a Paris-based restaurant, la Résidence. The courses, titled SÉSAME and TOURNESOL, prepare refugee students to take roles as culinary staff, kitchen clerks, or catering managers. By 2020, the program reached 293 partner restaurants and over 136,770 French citizens.
17. Sanctuary Kitchen, United States
Sanctuary Kitchen in New Haven, Connecticut offers plant-based meal subscriptions, hands-on cooking classes, and supper club-style meals. Immigrants and refugees from around the world use the platform to share their favorite meals with diners in intimate classes. Sanctuary Kitchen Chefs are also given access to the Food Business Accelerator, an incubator program designed to remove barriers to food entrepreneurship and increase immigrant and BIPOC leadership.
18. Tanabel, United States
Refugee women staff Tanabel, a Brooklyn based food and events company. Their name originates from the Damascan Souk el-Tanabel, where merchants, often housewives, sell pre-prepared vegetables to shoppers. In New York, Tanabel offers prepared meals for pickup on Thursdays and Saturdays, when refugee chefs celebrate the rich history of their cuisine.
19. Welcome Neighbor STL, United States
Welcome Neighbor STL is a community group supporting immigrants and refugees who are forging new paths in St. Louis, Missouri. The organization provides emotional and social support as well as entrepreneurial opportunities through their Supper Club dinners. Each dinner brings together community members over a shared food and 100 percent of proceeds go toward the refugee women who prepare the meals.
Photo courtesy of the From Soil to Plate Cooperative